Active Transportation: A Game-Changer for Salt Lake County

When I was a kid growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s in west Orem, I was a regular participant in “active transportation” – only I didn’t know it then.

I did a lot of walking and biking. Really a lot. As one of 10 kids in a one-car, middle-class family, my parents simply did not haul me around – except to piano lessons and church (knowing otherwise I wouldn’t make it).

So I walked, or wore out the seat of my Levis riding my one-speed Schwinn to sleepovers at friends’ houses, fishing on the Provo River, to Boy Scout meetings, hunting in the marshes of Utah Lake, to work at local farms, and to school if I missed the bus. It was either ride my bike or hoof it (yes, barefoot in the snow, uphill in both directions).

All of that changed, of course, when I turned 16 and found true freedom with the purchase of my first car (a rather beat-up 1961 Chevy Malibu ragtop convertible). The bike became a hand-me-down for a younger brother.

Back then, I had no idea that my involuntary participation in “active transportation” was so fashionable. In fact, I thought I was rather persecuted.

Today, thousands of Utahns are riding bikes and walking by choice, avoiding driving when possible. And they are going long distances — to work, errands, shopping and recreation.  Active modes of transportation, especially when coupled with public transportation provided by Utah Transit Authority, are reaching critical mass. Transportation planners and urban experts say that, with a little help, active transportation can make a real dent in road congestion and air quality – plus help old guys like me lose some weight and live a healthier lifestyle.

Across the Wasatch Front, cyclists, joggers and walkers are encouraging local leaders to provide more trails, more dedicated bike lanes, more public transit, and more safety, convenience and resources for those who want to use leg power to get places. The trend is expected to grow, not diminish.

And Salt Lake County leaders, in particular, along with Utah Transit Authority officials, have caught the vision and want to make active modes of transportation viable options to get almost anywhere in the county. Under the leadership of County Mayor Ben McAdams, the county is engaging in an ambitious master plan to guide and accelerate the build-out of trails, bike lanes and facilities across the county.

The mayor firmly believes that now is the time. Citizens are ready to participate in much larger numbers in active transportation. Numerous national studies have shown that, if you build it, they will come. The biggest deterrent to cycling is the safety factor – when a car and a bike meet inappropriately, the bike loses. (Who wants to be smashed like a bug against a windshield?) Properly engineered trails, bikeways and routes that are safe and fast, will boost participation dramatically.

National data indicate 5-8 percent of the population will ride bikes regardless of the infrastructure. These are the die-hard cyclists. But with excellent infrastructure, the numbers jump dramatically. Above 50 percent of citizens say they would bike or walk if they felt safer, if there are places to change clothes, lock up bikes, and other amenities.

Mayor McAdams said he and other county leaders view development of the master plan as enormously important.  “We fully intend to implement the plan, not just do a study that sits on a shelf.” This plan would be one of the first really broad master plans for active transportation in the entire country, taking in multiple jurisdictions across a big county.

Some cities within the county have, or are developing, their own plans, but McAdams wants a master workplan for the entire county, tying together cities and non-municipal areas, and making biking and walking viable ways to get around the county.

“We believe that active transportation, complementing and tied into public transit, has the potential to significantly impact highway congestion and improve air quality,” said McAdams. “This isn’t just a fashionable or politically correct thing to do. If done right, it really can improve mobility, improve quality of life, and promote healthy lifestyles.”

It isn’t feasible for most people to ride a bike from Draper to Salt Lake City for a meeting or to visit a friend. But coupled with public transit, such trips do become feasible, with the bike providing the “last mile” transportation.

One reason more people don’t use public transit is the time it takes to get from homes and offices to transit stops. A bike and a good bike path solves that problem for many people.  Public transit and active transportation complement and leverage each other.

Connecting transit and active transportation is key for UTA. "UTA carried two million trips in 2013 that connected to the system on a bike," says Michael Allegra, UTA's President and CEO. "We are excited to be partnering with Salt Lake County to grow that number, and get even more cars off the road."

McAdams said the county wants the comprehensive master plan to “roll up” existing local plans and the Utah Collaborative Active Transportation Study done by UTA, UDOT, and a number of local governments. UTA also commissioned a “last mile” study that will be pulled into the master plan. Local bicycle committees and other cycling and walking advocates will be consulted. Instead of balkanized communities doing their own thing without much collaboration or communication with neighbors, McAdams wants a regional plan connecting a contiguous metropolitan area.

The plan will not just put lines on a map, but will drill down and prescribe engineering treatments (what sort of bicycle path, for example), create a process to prioritize projects, and possibly a system of governance (such as an advisory board).

Once the county has a master plan, the next step will be to prioritize projects and invite communities to work collaboratively. “We want to work with you, turning the lines on the map into specific plans, doing the engineering, prescribing detailed bikeway treatments and applications, assessing costs, and providing funding for construction,” said McAdams.

One goal of the master plan will be to connect bike/walking trails to public transit stations and stops. Public transit complements active transportation and vice versa, making commuting long distances more viable, even if public transit ends a few miles from home/work.

The master plan will take into account three types of riders:  recreational riders, those who ride short distances between work/home/shopping, etc., and also those who combine biking or walking with public transit to go longer distances. The master plan will also factor in bikeshare programs, including current programs in Salt Lake City, and UTA’s plans for bike rental kiosks at its major stations.

Following development of the master plan, Salt Lake County expects to move quickly to implementation. Using a combination of county, city, state, transit, and possibly federal funds, county leaders want to come up with a relatively large pot of money, $50 million or more, to build out the network.

In highway funding, $50 million would barely do a freeway interchange. But spent on active transportation, it will go a long way, providing resources to construct the network and produce one of the best active transportation systems in the country. With a steady source of funds, the build-out could be complete in 10 years, McAdams said, providing safe routes across the county to commute by bike.

Public outreach will be a big part of developing the master plan. “We want all 1.2 million people in the county to be aware of this planning process and have an opportunity to provide their ideas and suggestions,” the mayor said. “We want to reach out to all the bicycle committees and local government leaders.” Some county ordinances and even state statutes might need to be changed to fully implement the vision.

“We think this is a big win for the county,” said McAdams. “Better air quality, less highway congestion, more exercise and improved quality of life. We’re also finding this is important for business recruitment and economic development.”

If you like to ride a bike or walk, this could be a game-changer for Salt Lake County.